Disability vs. the Wounded: Some Thoughts on Permanence and Nomenclature

Disablement is to disability as the spider is to the cricket. They belong to the same Linnean grid but not in the same terrarium. The reasons are many, but strictly speaking, disablement is transitive implying that just perhaps it has a back door, much like a tarantula. In other words you might not always be in the hole. “Disablement” suggests impermanence, as does the term “wounded warrior”. You’re not disabled if you’re wounded; not a cripple if your present circumstance is marked by disablement.

Compositional figures in language and the interpretational capacities of its speakers are seldom in conflict because “usage” predominates. For instance, we don’t think of direct objects as transitive: He was experiencing disablement is both in terms of embodiment indecipherable, and culturally comforting. (He was not disabled.)

A “wounded warrior” is unspecified and as a figure of embodiment unlocatable. In turn, disability is to the propositionalist’s imagination static and local. A pro tem or makeshift physicality is an inference. Disablement is a variable. Disability a constant.

“Can you be cured?” is the baseline proving the love of the transitive.

When I use the term “transitive body” I echo Merleau-Ponty but I don’t mean the body as a subjectivity in a state of awareness but instead multiple embodiments of what Goffman called “spoiled identity” and in turn the culture’s resistance to a crippling stasis.

It would be better for the Wounded Warrior project to stop its appeals to the imaginary transitive but of course such appeals make money, in large part because like religion, the prevailing narrative is metaphysical.

Moreover the transitive appeal of disablement has as its root, the medical model of disability, and proposes sites of overcoming within an extended charity model. That disability is static and requires a profound commitment to civil rights is never part of the TV commercial.


Two Cripples and the Locked Cathedral

Yesterday ambling around downtown Syracuse with my friend Bill who is a wheelchair user, I thought I’d show him the magnificent Episcopal church, because, well, it was a sunny day and we were in admiring moods. The church was locked. We circumnavigated it. All the doors were locked.

I won’t say we needed to go into the church. Bill is a recovering Catholic and I’m a fair weather Christian and mostly what we were after was beauty which if you’re Jungian means we were feeling spiritual but as anyone who’s read Philip Larkin knows, you can love a church for its lambent emptiness.

It was Friday. It was a national holiday. It was the middle of the day. The big church was locked.

“Well,” I thought, “that’s the high Episcopalians for you. Nothing’s more tasteful than a locked door.”

Syracuse is a tough city. Poverty is high. Homelessness is plentiful. Surely it makes sense to lock a downtown church on a holiday. Then I said to Bill: “Well they could let the homeless sleep in the church and show people around when the need arises.”

I invented a homeless man named “Slappy” who has a cot beside the boiler and a bottle of muscatel.

I felt bad for making jokes.

But I also thought, “Jesus would do this.”

Jesus would not understand homelessness and locked churches.

Then I thought, because the church was flying a rainbow flag above its locked door, “there’s pain in the streets every day.”

The locked doors were very red. There was fresh mulch in the flowerbeds.

Disability at the 4th of July

Because this is the summer when the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25, and since a quarter of a century is generally imagined as the age of solidity, I am, in witness of my dog, today declaring the ADA an adult. Notice I’m calling the act a person, since it’s a custom in the United States to declare accumulations of people individuals. We do this because the primary synonym for person is customer and we sure do love our customers. So I’m nominating the dear ADA a tough customer.

Yes, the ADA is now grown up. Her longevity is remarkable because boy oh boy, did she ever have some enemies, especially when she was just a kid. (Remember Clint Eastwood? How about Antonin Scalia?) Yes, there was a considerable cast of characters (who we can also call a person) who ardently wished to kill ADA in her cradle. I, for instance, have a great memory. I recall Tom Delay saying on the floor of the US Senate in 1990:  “The cost to the nation and the economy is going to be dramatic. This goes way beyond the bounds of reason.” Or how about noisome blab from the National Review:  “Under the guise of civil rights for the disabled, the Senate had passed a disaster for U.S. business.” ADA’s enemies proposed that euthanizing the child was really for the best. Notice the use of the phrase under the guise of civil rights, as though equal opportunity and civic life are, after all, really, just a fiction, or, to put it more succinctly, they’re a true story only for some. Perhaps the most vigorous opponent of ADA was (and remains) the Chamber of Commerce, which even today, bloviates that accessibility guidelines kill small businesses. (In order to believe this, its crucial to think that “the disabled” are insufficient customers, who live alone, who have no families and spouses and children who also shop.) It’s always staggered me how little the Chamber of Commerce knows about America’s customers. But I digress.

Dear ADA, on this 4th of July in the year of your quarter century, let us remember Thomas Jefferson and his American creed:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Dear ADA on this 4th of July in the year of your quarter century, let us remember that it was the consent of the governed, who hailed from both political parties, who brought you forth in the name of Liberty.

Dear ADA, here’s one more quote from Jefferson:

“On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

ADA: you are standing like a rock!





Dear Eloise, I Just Can’t Get the Slavery out of My Flag

You don’t need to be a Marxist historian to understand the Confederate flag but it doesn’t hurt to recall the central place of social class and economic controls when we remember the origins of the United States. Thomas Jefferson’s slaves still matter because they were the human capital upon which the American banking system was founded. Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York was the first engine of liquidity in the nation, and though our founding treasury secretary took a dim view of slavery and favored industrialization, much of the nation’s wealth derived from the slave states. Moreover, even after the industrial revolution took a firm hold in North America, slavery drove the engines. When “some” people wave the Confederate flag today they’re attempting to imagine something noble—as if southern heritage has finally been bleached of substance like Wonder Bread. Most who wave the flag want to extoll racial hate.

I wrote a one liner on Twitter last week: “No matter how many times you wash the Confederate flag, you just can’t get the slavery out.”

On Getting Disabled

We talk about the art of getting naked or of flower arranging, but we never speak of the art of becoming disabled. In America disability is discussed simply as rehabilitation, as if living is no more complicated than lighting a stove.

The art of getting disabled is a necessary subject. When we look to history we find examples of this art everywhere. Disabled makers stand against loss.  They make something of difference. When traveling in France Thomas Jefferson broke his wrist. A surgeon set the break badly. A major facet of his life was changed forever.  He was forced to put aside his treasured violin. In turn he took up long, slow, leisurely horseback rides as a meditative practice.

Blind people don’t necessarily need dogs. White cane travel is a very fine way to get around. But I say guide dog travel is an art. It’s a means toward living much as Jefferson learned to live. Moving in consort with an excellent animal is one way to make a life. Art is mysterious. Some find a path to a certain form. Some find an unlike form.

Oh I know Jefferson sang to his horses. He was very fond of singing. Moving in consort requires it I think.

It’s hard to imagine singing to a white cane.

Do you need to sing to live well? No. I’ve a great good friend who is nonspeaking. But in turn his whole body is music.

My deaf friends sing.

“You got to keep something moving all the time,” said Huddle Ledbetter, otherwise known as “Leadbelly” when asked how he played the 12 string guitar.

Many of my wheelchair pals are dancers.

Several of my disabled friends are comedians.

We crackle, zip, exhale, inhale, sport with our fingers, flap, jump, pop wheelies, and jingle with harnesses.

Resourceful life is practiced. Sometimes it is silly. Art can and often should be frivolous. With permission from curators at the Museum of Modern Art I was once allowed to spin Marcel DuChamp’s famous wheel, a bicycle fork with front wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. DuChamp was a DaDaist. He made art by placing things side by side that did not formally belong together. A MOMA staff member handed me a pair of latex gloves and I pulled them on and with my first guide dog Corky watching beside me, I reached out and gave DuChamp’s aluminum wheel a spin. “This is the steering wheel of my life,” I thought. Eccentric motion. A dog walking life not always understood by others, but simple and smoothly elegant.

No you don’t need a dog, or any other animal if you have a disability. Solo life contains its own joys.

I certainly know some blind folks who would say I’m over the top talking about art in the context of service dog life. I know people who say a guide dog is just a mobility aid. I’m fine with that. As long as they’re kind to their dog machines I’ve nothing to say about this view. To each his own. I have friends who don’t like poetry. I don’t think their worlds are harmed by their disinterest. All I know for sure is what a guide dog can do. Though the stationary wheel of your life seemed forever stopped, she says give it a turn. You’ll be surprised where the imagination can take you.



George Washington’s “Sweetlips”

It’s a game I have, as a means of cheering myself, to think of famous people and their dogs.

In respect to this pastime I can’t think of any of our forebears who affords me greater pleasure than George Washington who truly loved his dogs. You can read about our first President and his canine companions here. I especially love the following:

Imagine the Father of Our Country whistling for his hound, Sweetlips…or rubbing the ears of his coach dog, a Dalmatian named Madame Moose. When it came to pooches, George Washington had a sense of humor – and a tender side, too.

During his lifetime, Washington kept almost every group of dog recognized today by the American Kennel Club. Records show that he owned French hounds Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, and Ragman – just to name a few. Greyhounds, Newfoundlands, Briards, and various types of spaniels, terriers, and toys also called the estate home.

And they too probably had awesome names.

To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body: A Disability Perspective on Rachel Dolezal

I have been trying to think magnanimously about Rachel Dolezal’s self declared blackness, a venture that many who write critically about embodiment and society ought to attempt, if for no other reason than to interpret the difference between an emotional reaction to a cultural circumstance and a nuanced reading of the current moment. I can’t help but recall Jacques Lacan’s observation that to live in a body is to experience fragmentation, moreover, according to the principle of corps morcele, every man and woman lives out his or her imaginary anatomy. The self-consciousness of embodiment is one form of hysteria and it’s fair to say that in a culture where eating disorders, gender dysphoria, and the abjections that accompany physical flaws are legion, Rachel Dolezal’s story isn’t unique. The 24-7 news cycle insists we think so, demanding indignation because her black identification is merely a ruse. This is fair enough. It’s also fair to argue, as many have, that her “act” was possible only by virtue of white privilege. Others say that by pretending to be a woman of color she stole public positions that ought, rightfully, to have gone to an authentic black person. Yes, the story is a mess. Add the long history of miscegenation and “one drop” jurisprudence and Dolezal’s act appears cynical and perhaps even cruel.

I’m a blind person. For many years I tried to prove I could see because my parents said appearing sighed was crucial for me. My story isn’t unique. Many people with disabilities struggle to accept their bodies. Beyond acceptance one learns about the body politic—the values assigned to bodies are often the products of sinister histories. But I digress. I know a little something about pretending to be someone else, and I know a good deal about not liking the corps morcele. Did I do damage to people back in the days when I pretended I could see? I think so. I made other people hostages to my circumstance—I needed people to accompany me even as I feigned capacities of self-determination I didn’t possess. Deceit isn’t good for the deceiver and it pollutes his surroundings.

And so, back to my earlier point—Lacan’s really—that all of us live in our imaginary anatomies. These visions can be strictly compensatory, like thinking you’re athletic when you’re not. Or telling yourself you can see when in fact you can’t. Or they can be artfully constructed and exceed simple escapist desires. Who would not say Ru Paul isn’t authentically alive and dazzling?

Let us all play act at being one another. There is more health in constructive imaginations of embodiment than there is in culturally enforced denial. We need new public narratives for Lacan’s fragmented anatomies.

What if we applauded people for telling us how they really feel on the inside?

In his famous essay “To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body” the French philosopher Felix Guattari wrote:

No matter how much it proclaims its pseudo-tolerance, the capitalist system in all its forms (family, school, factories, army, codes, discourse…) continues to subjugate all desires, sexuality, and affects to the dictatorship of its totalitarian organization, founded on exploitation, property, male power, profit, productivity…Tirelessly it continues its dirty work of castrating, suppressing, torturing, and dividing up our bodies in order to inscribe its laws on our flesh, in order to rivet to our subconscious its mechanisms for reproducing this system of enslavement.

With its throttling, its stasis, its lesions, its neuroses, the capitalist state imposes its norms, establishes its models, imprints its features, assigns its roles, propagates its program… Using every available access route into our organisms, it insinuates into the depths of our insides its roots of death. It usurps our organs, disrupts our vital functions, mutilates our pleasure, subjugates all lived experience to the control of its condemning judgments. It makes of each individual a cripple, cut off from his or her body, a stranger to his or her own desires.

What I saw this week in moist and spasmodic reaction to the Dolezal affair was affirming of Guattari—which is to say, the outrage may have a great deal to do with repression, the condemning judgments may be designedly disruptive, assuring we will not talk about the provisional anatomies we’re forced to live under the flag of “norms”.